24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.
Enduring the oppressive heat of the Mekong Delta on two wheels might not be everyone's idea of fun, but for some, it's a tried and tested method for leaving work commitments behind and gaining true perspective on the world around them.
Given the emotional high she gets from these kinds of trips, Tricia Anderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Independent Petroleum Marketers Association, wouldn't have it any other way.
"There's almost this transcendental experience, I find, on a road bike," the 60-year-old says. "It's just so wonderful to be able to move like that, you can escape everything in a way."
As a dedicated recreational cyclist who has spent the past few years travelling the globe with her husband, Doug, in search of two-wheeled nirvana, Ms. Anderson says she uses time on her bike as an effective stress-relief tool. At times, she admits she can almost find herself going into a zen zone on what she affectionately calls her "magic motion machine."
Heading up CIPMA, whose members account for 27 per cent of all gasoline sold in Canada annually, she has good reason to look for ways to channel her energies in a positive manner away from the office. But beyond the feeling of a cool breeze blowing through her hair on a hot summer day, Ms. Anderson says it's the toughing-it-out aspect of cycling that has some of the greatest carry-over qualities into her work life.
She has had plenty of experience of that, from getting caught in a torrential downpour riding to her home in Mississauga from nearby Dundas, Ont., to cycling from Saigon to Bangkok over terrible roads and dealing with extreme heat and saddle sores.
She even broke her arm a few years ago when she took a tumble trying to unclip her shoe from the pedal in the process of dismounting after a ride, but refused to let that stop her from getting her daily endorphin release. She just strapped her arm to her body and went running instead.
"Some of the time you do hit crummy weather or accidents or whatever, or it's just hard slogging," she says. "But the business world can be like that as well. So you do have to appreciate even those days."
She recalls some of the challenging times during her 28-year tenure with Suncor Energy, which ended after a merger with Petro-Canada in 2009, such as her five-year stint as a retail manager, which involved the monotony of daily inspections of retail gas sites. However, her time there also fostered her understanding of the importance of teamwork, and her "have bike, will travel" alter ego finds frequent opportunities to bring that to bear.
During the last trip she took, to Turkey, her cycling group featured a range of characters, from a 70-year-old multimillionaire author to a hairdresser from the British Virgin Islands. But as in business, everyone had to pull in the same direction to reach the end destination.
"Most of the time I worked at Suncor I felt good harmony in terms of my personal values and theirs and that whole collegial aspect of it was important," Ms. Anderson says. "I like that about biking because everybody's got a role in the team."
Every team needs a leader though, and time on the bike has taught her that it's not always the person you might expect. Ms. Anderson admits that her adventures, in group settings ranging from Portugal to California, and Manitoulin Island in Ontario to New Zealand, have shown her to keep an open mind when meeting people for the first time.
"You can't judge people the same way when there's no office or title behind it," she says. "Be prepared to be surprised by what people bring to the table; most people have a lot more than you might judge based on your superficial interaction with them."
One of her other personal passions has brought the whole idea of leadership and teamwork home, possibly even more so than spending time on a road bike. In the year and a half between leaving Suncor and joining CIPMA, Ms. Anderson underwent what she calls her personal renaissance. Devoid of the 70-hour working weeks she had been putting in, she turned her attention to personal development, such as taking classes at Ryerson University in Toronto, focusing on her tennis game, becoming serious about cycling and getting reacquainted with one of her original loves, music.
Joining a choral group called Newchoir, which performs renditions of classic rock 'n' roll tunes, Ms. Anderson has sung with such stars as former Barenaked Ladies front man Steven Page, and last month had the opportunity to sing in a competition at New York's famed Carnegie Hall. Singing in a 130-member choir has brought home some important lessons that can be applied to any organization.
"You can't second guess the choir director all the time," she says. "I think work's a lot like that, too. If you want to be your own boss, great, but if you're working in an organization, it really helps if you have that approach and it's fabulous if you have a good leader leading the organization."
Though she's now the one at the top of her current organization, Ms. Anderson can recall times when she was a little lower down the totem pole, and just getting one foot on the ladder was the goal. But just like the first time she climbed on a road bike, with its skinny tires and faster speeds than she was used to on her old mountain bike, she learned to look past the fear.
That came into play at Suncor, where employees were sometimes expected to take a leap into the unknown. Wanting more prominence for the company, Ms. Anderson's bosses asked her to take on a public affairs role, in addition to the roles she already had. Without any experience in the subject matter, Ms. Anderson learned through trial and error. It's something that, looking back now, she's grateful to have had the opportunity to do.
"I think that has been a really good lesson from work, in that if companies allow that, I think there are an amazing number of things that people can turn their hand to," she says. "It's amazing what you can figure out just by plodding through something and not trying, or staying in your safety zone."
Ms. Anderson can think of no greater reward than her decision to face her fears straight on and get on a road bike. She has trips to the Yukon and along the Great Allegheny Trail in the Appalachian Mountains on her radar for this cycling season, where she will be aiming to at least equal the 4,000 kilometres she covered last year.
While work remains important in her life, she's not sure she could be tempted to go back to putting in 60-plus-hour weeks as a vice-president or similar role for a large-scale organization, even though her two children have long since grown up and moved out.
"Personally I don't want to make that sacrifice right now," she says. "I don't need to and I don't want to and I wouldn't really see the value because I really do like versatility and I like diversity in my life."